by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
May 16, 2002
TRASHING OUR DEMOCRACY
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- In today's toxic political climate, only two philosophies seem to be allowed. Either you believe fervently in free-market capitalism, rugged cowboy individualism, zero tolerance, revenge as foreign policy, and that those who lag behind economically deserve it, or you believe passionately that we're all in this together, one for all and all for one, doing unto others and working together to help every person on the planet have a good, decent, sustainable and humane life.
While any sane person would recognize that these are stereotypes, it still seems as though everything is framed in black or white, with-us-or-against-us, and barely even Republican versus Democrat. It's radical this versus radical that and the devil take the hindmost.
Common sense seems to have been thrown out with the baby, the bathwater, and the middle ground. Why should personal responsibility, for example, preclude compassion? Don't we all need decent jobs, clean air, and a good place to live?
Even the most independent person sometimes need a helping hand.
Many of our social systems are broken, and we should be combing all sides of the political spectrum for ideas to fix them. Instead, we delight in using scorn, labels, invective, lies and deceit to cripple and maim our political opponents. It seems as if people are more intent on proving their point than in improving the common welfare.
Take the health care system, for example. We all know what's wrong. Prescription drugs cost too much. Health insurance costs too much and provides too little insurance. There's too much waste and bureaucracy. Some people don't have access to doctors while others have Botox parties.
We should be in the middle of a national dialogue on how to make sure that all our citizens stay healthy and have good medical care at the least possible cost.
And why aren't we? Because our politicians, both Republican and Democratic, are spending their political capital destroying the only system that actually helps some of the most vulnerable Americanswith their health care expenses - Medicare.
Once they've drained as much money out of it as they can, they will point to it, say, "Hey, it doesn't work," and dismantle it in favor of the insurance and drug industries.
Or take doctors. Since the ascendancy of HMOs, they have had to cram more patients into their days and more paperwork into their nights. Many are collapsing under the strain, or refusing to deal with health insurance at all, or leaving the profession entirely. So they say, "Hey, the system doesn't work," and go off to establish "boutique" practices where, for high fees, they nurture only patients wealthy enough to pay for coddling.
Or take public education. School infrastructures are crumbling, students and teachers don't feel safe, classes are too large, resources such as libraries, laboratories, music and art classes are practically non-existent, and raises for teachers are a joke.
But instead of pouring money into new school buildings, paying teachers well, and providing the technology and resources our children need to learn, we keep draining money out of the system. Then we point to it, say, "Hey, it doesn't work," and try to set up vouchers for private schools.
Or take the arts. America has never really supported its artists, although their creativity benefits us all. But once we supplied a certain amount of grant money to a certain number of artists - the luckiest ones - and gave them a bit of help until they could claw their way to a living wage. Then came the destruction of the National Endowment of Arts, with politicians pulling out a few very oddball artists (hey, it's the arts) as bad examples at the expense of all the symphonies and theater companies and struggling artists in the country. And then they say, "Hey, it doesn't work," and create a conformist, self-censoring, winner-take-all culture that has stifled a great deal of creativity.
For a while now I've been wondering if all this destructive behavior wasn't part of some underhanded strategy - the repeal of the New Deal, maybe, or the Enlightenment - and why the majority of us -- who benefit from these systems - don't rebel.
I've been a slow learner, but I'm catching on. I was in northern Vermont on Saturday to cover a conference on single-payer health care, and one of the speakers, a union organizer named Nick Unger, told a Lenny Bruce joke that put everything into perspective for me. "First they break our legs, then they make fun of us because we limp," Bruce said.
Unger believes, ironically, that America is now splitting apart solely because of belief in its founding myth - that we are a democracy, a meritocracy, with enough equal opportunity to go around, and "that any person can access greatness." If we all believe we have a shot at "greatness," it stands to reason we won't agitate against obscene corporate executives' salaries, or the equally obscene salaries of sports, pop music and movie stars, because we believe we have a chance of getting a lot of money for ourselves one day. And if not, maybe our children or grandchildren will. Las Vegas andthe lotteries are built on that premise.
We won't object when some people get deluxe health care, because we think that if we ever get really sick, that kind of care will be available to us -- even though it is unlikely that we will ever be able to access it. We don't object to magazines with pictures of lavish parties while some people go hungry, or of McMansions while some people are living on the streets, because we imagine ourselves in those pictures.
In other words, so many of us believe that we will "make it" some day that we are allowing our system to favor the few over the many. We are identifying so strongly with the rich and famous that we don't consider it a sin when they absorb so much of our national resources while our schools, health care system and culture crumble. In fact, we don't way a word. "It's so tacky (and so over) to bitch the rich," says society columnist Suzy. Sadly, she's right.
We - the people of the United States - are actively trashing our own democracy. Is there a solution? Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who also spoke at that meeting, thinks so.
"We need a political breakthrough," Sanders said. "We need millions of Americans to organize, take control of their lives and their government, and insist that they work for everyone, not just the wealthy and the powerful."
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.